That first meeting took place about two months before the scheduled date of the play, just as the homeroom teachers were beginning their Oregon Trail units. I didn't want to begin work on the actual play right away, because I felt the boys would not have enough information yet, but I wanted to keep my drama classes focused on the Oregon Trail right from the beginning, so that creating a play would be a natural step. For this reason I began devising self-contained drama lessons "about" the Oregon Trail--lessons that would reinforce the ideas the students were learning in their homerooms, and might stimulate different kinds of understanding. (One of my main focuses since I arrived at this school has been to design drama lessons that, without compromising my own curricular goals, would reinforce the learning the boys were doing in other subjects.) The next time I met with a fourth-grade class, they had just been talking about propaganda, so I started with that. After a short discussion of the topic, I introduced this question: "What do you think would be different about propaganda if this story were happening in 1999 instead of 1845?" With no prompting from me the students quickly agreed that television would be used extensively in any contemporary propaganda campaign. So I divided the class into teams and each team set about creating a "television commercial" urging settlers to come to Oregon. We agreed that we would pretend everything was like it was in the mid-nineteenth century except for the existence of television--folks would still be traveling with wagons and oxen, not buses or planes. (That's actually a pretty sophisticated concept, and I probably wouldn't have tried it with third grade, but most of the fourth-graders grasped it pretty well.) This project combined such dramatic concerns as how to best present an idea visually, careful speech, sound effects, etc, with important details about the Oregon Trail and about the kinds of claims made about the new territory in propaganda of the time. After reflection I think the lesson was about three-fourths successful. (In each class, an average of three groups out of four took the project seriously enough to learn from it, while the fourth just got silly.) The next time I do the lesson I will take greater care to insist that it be approached seriously, and side coach more vigorously the groups who are inclined to drop the ball. (Teaching in an all-boy environment has been a slow learning experience for me, and I still sometimes have trouble combating the idea that drama class is a time to "play," but that's a whole other article.)
Another activity I devised was actually an offshoot of the way the fourth-grade teachers had structured their social studies unit. Each boy in each class was given an "identity" taken from actual records of Oregon Trail pioneers. Each had a name and some information about his family, his occupation, etc. I spend one day in class "interviewing" settlers for a newspaper "back east," asking them lots of questions about why they were traveling, etc. This was quite successful, and reinforced both the specific information they had learned about their individual characters and more general (and ultimately more important) ideas about why people wanted to move west. On reflection I think it would have been an even better exercise if the students had taken turns in role as the reporter, but I didn't think of that in time to try it. Our original idea had been that each boy would play "his" character in our class play, but we eventually dropped that because of the necessity of adding women, a few specific historical figures and native people to our cast of characters. (In boys' schools--or any way in this one--there is never much of a problem with boys playing female roles in plays at the elementary level.) Still, it was agreed that unless he was playing someone specifically other than his assigned identity, each boy would assume he was playing that character in the play. Some boys grasped this concept better than others, but it didn't seem to cause undue confusion.
Probably the most successful project I did with the boys before beginning the actual playwriting process was one we called "News Plays." I based the idea on the "Living Newspapers" of the Depression-era theatre. The concept was that folks in cities on the East might be wondering what was happening on the Trail, but there was no television news, and (let's face it) lots of people don't really read newspapers. So we were going to create live "News Plays," that would dramatize important events for the folks in the cities. We discussed the necessity of selecting stories with entertainment value and action, that would be of interest to people not on the trail. We decided that in some ways the attitude of the settled city-dweller to the pioneers in 1845 might have been similar to the way most of us today look at the astronauts in a space station. We have no intention of going ourselves, but we get a certain vicarious enjoyment out of the news reports we watch. All three fourth grade classes came up with that metaphor without my help (although they of course didn't use the word "vicarious"). This was the last project I did with the boys before launching into the writing process, and I put it there deliberately, because it got them thinking about places and events on the trail not just in terms of their historical significance, but also in terms of their dramatic action and entertainment value. The "News Plays" the students created were more consistently well-thought-out than the earlier "commercials," possibly because, having learned my lesson, I was more proactive with boys who were inclined to get silly.